What if people actually are good judges of their own best interests?

Conservative intellectuals often argue that liberalism and social democracy depend on norms and institutions that liberal and social democratic policies could not create. They usually go on from that claim to assert that particular policies favored by liberals or by social democrats in fact undermine norms and institutions without which those policies could not function.

We hear this kind of argument when conservatives oppose reforms aimed at helping individual people succeed outside the structure of the patriarchal family. Programs that provide financial assistance and particular services to households headed by single women, laws that prohibit discrimination against women and members of sexual minority groups, educational facilities independent of traditionalist religious groups, and other such efforts are often attacked on the grounds that they can succeed only in a society in which patriarchal families are the norm and in which the common identity and habit of discipline that people supposedly gain as members of patriarchal families makes it possible for them to operate as intended. Without this common identity and habit of discipline, conservatives claim, no society could make a success of such ambitious programs. Inasmuch as reforms that help individual people succeed outside the structure of the patriarchal family weaken that structure on a societal level, such reforms are ultimately self-defeating.

This is also one of the reasons why conservative arguments that may have begun as a defense of monarchy, the established church, and the landowning aristocracy against the claims of the rising bourgeoisie need not change very much to be repurposed as a defense of the bourgeoisie against proposed reforms not altogether dissimilar from those the original conservatives may have supported. The market is another of the institutions that conservatives claim could not have been created by liberalism, even by the right-wing versions of liberalism that have come to dominate most right of center parties in the West. Reforms that left-wing liberals support on the grounds that they will put limits on the power of private interests, and that right-wing liberals oppose on the grounds that they will remove limits from the power of government, conservatives oppose on the grounds that they are dependent on the success of an institution which they undermine. Higher taxes, stronger regulation, a more generous welfare state, etc, all attract this criticism. Socialists often echo this criticism, arguing that it is a mistake to be content with raking off a percentage of the capitalists’ winnings when the proper business of politics is to replace the rule of the capitalists with a workers’ republic and capitalism with a different system altogether.

I bring all this up because of an article I read a few weeks ago. It was originally published last July; I can’t claim to be up to date on everything everyone writes! It is a blog post on which Professor George Lakoff of Berkeley offers a partial explanation for last year’s US presidential election. Professor Lakoff addresses the question that perennially vexes left-leaning observers of the US electoral scene: why do working class people vote against their own economic interests? Survey data shows that clear majorities of Americans do agree that such policies favored by the left as single payer health care, improved protections for the rights of labor, etc, are good things and that they personally would stand to benefit from their implementation, while politicians who oppose every one of these policies routinely win elections. Indeed, 70% of all elected offices in the USA, including the presidency, majorities of both houses of Congress, most state governorships, and majorities in most state legislative chambers, are now held by the Republican Party. If people actually do want the precise opposite of everything the Republicans stand for, why do the Republicans keep winning?

Professor Lakoff argues that it is because the relatively rational thought people exhibit when considering particular issues is overpowered by something they have adopted far less rationally, a metaphorical framework that leads us to understand the nation on the model of our families of origin. Professor Lakoff writes:

[W]e tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms: We have founding fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security. The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).

What do social issues and the politics have to do with the family? We are first governed in our families, and so we grow up understanding governing institutions in terms of the governing systems of families.

In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they are in charge of. When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. This reasoning shows up in conservative politics in which the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving, and the rich as deserving their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you; society has nothing to do with it. You are responsible for yourself, not for others — who are responsible for themselves.

For my part, I grew up in what Professor Lakoff would call a Nurturant Family; my parents divided responsibilities and shared authority equally, and explained their basic approach to parenting as one driven by curiosity as to how my siblings and I would turn out, rather than by any intention to fit us into any preconceived mold. I do incline to support left-liberal and social democratic policies, as Professor Lakoff’s theory would predict, and I would be gratified if it turned out that the conservatives were wrong in all of their criticisms of those policies.

On the other hand, I am willing to consider that they may not be entirely wrong. Maybe the reason so many Americans support each particular proposal of the liberal and social democratic left, yet vote for the far right, is that they have observed that while any one of those proposals would likely be helpful to them if enacted, people like them tend to have better outcomes in places where the Strict-Father Family reigns supreme, even if stingy or nonexistent welfare states, ferocious law enforcement, and unfettered corporate power mean that the price of failure is extremely high. Maybe it isn’t true that areas where the Strict-Father Family is in all ways dominant are places where working people are likelier than average to do well. I hope it isn’t! But maybe it is, in which case we would be faced with the unpleasant prospect that people in general actually know what is good for them.

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